TV executives must have been happy to put a fork in the 2012-13 season. Ratings dropped across the board for broadcast networks due to fading reality franchises and the failure to launch any major new scripted hits. Cable also slumped, with audience levels flat compared with the previous season. And with the number of viewers who time-shift growing, the path to success is more treacherous than ever. Here are the shows that navigated the bumps — and the ones that became ratings road kill.
Let us now praise Mark Burnett. Not only did the producer give NBC hope with The Voice, but he also had faith that millions of people would sit down to watch time-tested stories from the Good Book. It helped that Burnett and his wife and fellow executive producer Roma Downey did a publicity push at megachurches. The premiere was the second-highest-rated show for History, with 13.1 million viewers.
The Big Bang Theory
It's not an exaggeration to call the CBS (and now TBS) sitcom this generation's Friends. The show's age-defying ratings climbed in its sixth year to 15.5 million total viewers. It was also up 11 percent among the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic. "It's truly a marvel," says an executive at a rival network. Now TV's No. 1 comedy, The Big Bang Theory helped CBS become the top network among the 18-49 crowd for the first time in 21 years.
The Robertson family delivered a record rating for A&E when it scored 9.6 million viewers for its April 24 finale. (No wonder the cast is asking for a big raise.) While it might be surprising that no broadcast network has attempted to replicate the success of Duck Dynasty and other cable reality shows set in rural America, there's a reason: "The audience is very downscale," one network exec notes. As long as broadcast TV depends on advertisers who want wealthy viewers, you won't see any duck callers without a subscriber fee.
The Fox thriller is shoving an ice pick straight into the eye of the old TV business model. Star Kevin Bacon requested that the show have a shortened run of 15 episodes, and in response to the success of this tactic, next season other networks will experiment with several new limited-run series. The Following is also a strong indicator of the way viewers are time-shifting. Of the show's 16.4 million viewers, about 8 million people tuned in to the drama the night it aired, according to Fox. Another 3.9 million watched it later on DVR; 2.5 million saw it in repeats; 700,000 viewed it via video on demand; and 1.3 million streamed it via Fox.com or Hulu.com.
ABC's sophomore sensation proves that shows about Washington, D.C., can be sexy and addictive. The drama's Season 2 finale attracted 9.1 million viewers, its largest audience yet, up 25 percent from its Season 1 ender. "We're always discussing how amazed and grateful we are for the fans who watched our tiny seven-episode Season 1 and then spread the word to bring in new 'gladiators,'" says exec producer Shonda Rhimes. "It's thrilling to have the show find such a great audience in Season 2."
Panelist and investor Kevin O'Leary says the shaky economy has more people wanting to control their own destinies by becoming entrepreneurs. With the ABC hit drawing 6.2 million viewers and boasting 17 percent growth in the 18-49 demographic — more than any other reality series this season — he might be right.
NBC's recovery begins with The Voice. As viewers gravitated to the chemistry among coaches Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Shakira and Usher, The Voice helped make NBC the only network with ratings growth during May sweeps. What's the appeal? "The Voice," executive producer Mark Burnett says, "is a kindhearted show that has current recording and touring superstar coaches, current songs for contestants, a set that feels like it lives in 2013 and a production team that is totally A-list."
The Walking Dead
Never before has a basic-cable series ended the season as TV's No. 1 drama among viewers 18-49. But AMC's zombie drama did just that, averaging 7 million fans in this demographic. "We hope that zombies live forever," AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan said at a recent business conference.
American Idol/The X Factor
Despite the addition of judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban, Fox's Idol lost about a quarter of its viewers and will undergo a major cost-cutting makeover next season to keep it profitable. As for The X Factor, will Simon Cowell ever get it right? While NBC's The Voice shone last fall, The X Factor's attempt at a reboot with new judges Demi Lovato and Britney Spears led to an 18 percent decline in ratings among viewers 18-49. For Season 3, Cowell is again trying a judges' panel switcheroo.
MTV's attempt to fill the Jersey Shore void never quite lived up to its predecessor, but this freewheeling look at a group of West Virginia pals (which averaged around 3 million viewers) did well enough to earn a second season. However, the death of star Shain Gandee on April 1, coupled with other cast members' legal troubles, led MTV to pull the plug. "Given Shain's tragic passing and essential presence on the show, we felt it was not appropriate to continue without him," the network said.
The cancellation of the NBC sitcom makes Matthew Perry a three-time loser in his post-Friends primetime career (the other duds were Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Mr. Sunshine). But he won critical raves for his recurring turn as sleazy politician Mike Kresteva on The Good Wife. Maybe a network should consider giving him a lead role as someone other than a neurotic whose life is falling apart.
After its 2012 debut, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt declared the heavily promoted musical drama "an unqualified success." Much of that success had to do with its airing after The Voice. When Smash had to stand on its own in its second (and final) season, the audience dropped faster than a crowd fleeing a theater during intermission at a Broadway bomb.
TNT execs agonized over the fate of this cop drama, but ultimately critical acclaim and a Peabody Award couldn't save the show after it posted low ratings. The Season 5 finale averaged 1.8 million viewers, which was actually up from last season, but it wasn't enough to offset rising production costs. "We are enormously proud of Southland, which stands as one of the best police dramas ever made," the network said in a May 10 statement after canceling the show. It remains to be seen if a TV-movie will be produced to wrap up loose ends.